ICBM test by U.S. is a signal to North, Russia

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ICBM test by U.S. is a signal to North, Russia

The United States tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Wednesday, days before North Korea was due to hold a major military parade.

According to the U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM equipped with a test re-entry vehicle was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at around 12:33 a.m., which flew approximately 4,200 miles before landing in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

The test, which was conducted almost exactly a year before a major nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia is due to expire, was designed to “verify the accuracy and reliability” of the weapon system and “most importantly” served to demonstrate U.S. national security capabilities to “assure our partners and dissuade potential aggressors,” read an official press release.

The Minuteman III is currently the only land-based ICBM in service in the United States, set to be replaced with a new missile, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, from 2027 onward. Given that the Minuteman III was introduced in 1970, U.S. military planners have been keen to modernize their ICBMs, with Wednesday’s test meant to test a new fuze - the detonation device - for the missile.

While the U.S. Air Force noted such tests are scheduled three to five years in advance, the timing of the launch appeared to highlight a message of strength to Washington’s military adversaries in Moscow and Beijing, as well as Pyongyang, with whom denuclearization talks have been deadlocked since last year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signaled in a year’s end address in December that the country would unveil a “new strategic weapon” this year to mount pressure on the United States, which analysts say most likely refers to a large submarine the regime could use to launch - and conceal - nuclear missiles.

Development of such a weapon could explain why Pyongyang has refrained from testing an ICBM this year in spite of Kim’s verbal revocation of a self-imposed moratorium on such tests in his year-end speech.

On Saturday, North Korea is due to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of its Korean People’s Army, which often involves a massive military parade in Pyongyang. While Military Foundation Day was celebrated on April 25 since 1978, the date was changed to Feb. 8 in 2018, to deliberately coincide with the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics held that year in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Seoul’s Ministry of Unification on Thursday said it would be monitoring whether the North would be holding a high-profile military event, noting that the regime’s state of high alert over the Wuhan coronavirus may make such a parade difficult.

On Feb. 16, North Korea will celebrate the Day of the Shining Star - a public holiday to commemorate the birth of Kim Jong-il, the regime’s former leader and father of Kim Jong-un.

Analysts, however, say it is unlikely North Korea will hold large public gatherings on both holidays this year, given the emphasis the regime has been placing on sanitary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Concerns of contamination have led Pyongyang to completely shut its border with China and order South Korea to temporarily withdraw from a liaison office in Kaesong in recent weeks.

That isolation, ironically facilitated thanks to punishing international sanctions on the regime over its nuclear program, is even more of an impediment to denuclearization by the regime, according to the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi.

At a forum in Washington on Monday, Grossi said that even if IAEA inspectors were allowed to return to North Korea for inspections, the country “is a far more difficult, complex place to verify” than it was in 2009, when IAEA inspectors were kicked out.

Stressing Pyongyang was an “illegal nuclear power” that was not legally recognized as a legitimate nuclear state by the IAEA, Grossi nonetheless said his agency would be ready to return to the country if it were to reach an agreement with Washington over its nuclear program.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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